In our continuing series on people who made headlines in 2009, Alanah May Eriksen encounters a family coming to terms with the death of a daughter
By sleeping in her little sister Aisling's former bedroom and having her toys and clothes there, 6-year-old Caitlin Symes feels closer to her lost sibling.
After the 2-year-old disappeared from the Henderson house of her late maternal grandparents, which her mother was cleaning in October, Caitlin abandoned her "old room" - as she calls it - downstairs in the Massey home of her parents Angela and Alan Symes and moved upstairs.
The little girl's love for her sister was obvious when the Herald caught up with the family almost three months after Aisling's body was found in a drain.
The Symes have since been showered with random acts of kindness by strangers.
The family had just returned from a holiday to the Sunshine Coast. It was their second trip to Australia donated by strangers since their daughter's death.
Caitlin showed off the boxes of letters, sympathy cards, drawings, soft toys and other items which flooded in from all over the world.
Most had no return addresses on them, but the Symes have vowed to look through them all.
"All these people sent all these things out of sheer love," Mr Symes said.
"We don't know who they are; this stuff has just turned up."
Among the well-wishers were the parents of British girl Madeleine McCann, who disappeared in Portugal in May 2007 while her parents dined at a nearby hotel.
The Symes have also received phone calls from parents of the students who died while canyoning in the Mangatepopo Stream in 2008.
"They said, 'I know you won't believe it now, but your life will begin again'," said Mrs Symes, whose eyes still well up with tears when talking about her daughter.
A family friend who lives in Wellington sent the Symes a certificate showing she had "named" a star after Aisling. The star was registered by the International Star Registry, in the US state of Illinois.
It appears everyone felt a connection with Aisling, Mrs Symes said. The family's German shepherd-huntaway cross, Duke, used to howl along to the tune of the harmonica or flute Aisling would play to him.
The family believe the dog knew the toddler had died, as he howled when the family came home without her.
When the little girl disappeared, Mr Symes took time off from his broadcasting course at the New Zealand Radio Training School.
But the Irish native graduated last month among the top in his class and received a $500 scholarship which he will use to further his education.
Mr Symes now has a technical producing job with BSport, and hopes one day to move on to an on-air role.
On Christmas Eve, the Symescelebrated with a traditional German meal, as Mrs Symes' sister-in-law is German.
On Christmas Day they spent time with Mr Symes' family before going to Mangawhai in Northland for a few weeks at a family bach.
Aisling's parents are yet to bury her ashes in Waikumete Cemetery in Waitakere, where her grandparents lie.By Alanah Eriksen @AlanahEriksen Email Alanah